Life has been unkind to Rudi and to Lucie and Elsebeth, the two little girls he looks after. So when this stranger announces he needs Rudi's help to uncover Hansel's treasure, Rudi sees a way out.
And so an incredible journey one filled with mist-covered castles, a treehouse-dwelling outsider, and creatures called murglins begins. But as Rudi, the girls, and the stranger weave their way through the rambling woods, Rudi notices the clouds blackening and a thick fog descending. He wonders, Has the forest always been this...creepy? And those shadows between the trees is their tiny group being followed?
Then the unthinkable happens: Lucie and Elsebeth are stolen! Who would take them? Rudi gets his answer in the shape of a warlock. And his ransom price is steep: Bring me Hansel and the children will be returned. Is a simple woodcutter like Rudi any match for a thousand-year-old villain?
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The Eye of the Warlock
By P. W. Catanese
AladdinCopyright © 2005 P. W. Catanese
All right reserved.
Rudi had a feeling that something was wrong as soon as he returned from the village.
The little girls were nowhere in sight. "Elsebeth? Lucie?" he called. But neither of them answered. A warm, prickly feeling swept across the back of his neck.
He went to the tiny house on the edge of the forest. This rickety place had stood here for many years, passed from one woodsman to the next kinsman who was witless or desperate enough to take on this trade. Witless, in Uncle Hempel's case.
Hempel's ax was gone from its usual place on the wall, so Rudi was sure he'd gone into the woods. He probably took the girls with him because I wasn't here to help, he thought.
"Aunt Agnes?" he called, to no reply. It was just as well. He never welcomed a conversation with her. I guess Aunt Agnes went along to gather wood. But why? She never does that....
He ran to the mouth of the forest path that was blazed and cleared by generations of woodsmen. It was wide at first, then narrowed as shrubs and trees encroached from either side, until the shadowy corridor withered to nothing, miles deep in the murky interior of the woods.
Cupping his hands, Rudi shouted, "Uncle Hempel! Elsie and Lucie! Are you there? Do you need some help?"
Nobody answered. Rudi frowned and ran his fingers through his white-blond hair. He suddenly realized what was troubling him: a notion that had been swimming just under the surface of his mind now leaped up and revealed itself like a fish. It was the legend of something that supposedly happened many years before, to a brother and sister who lived in this very house. Don't be silly, he thought, forcing his thoughts away from that tale.
Sounds came from the forest: twigs snapping, leaves rustling, and the voice of his aunt, harsh as always. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Aunt Agnes came out first, carrying only a bundle of sticks. There was a look on her face that Rudi didn't like at all -- a secret, satisfied smile. Uncle Hempel came out next. His wide-bladed ax was slung from his leather belt. He bore a large stack of logs on his shoulder and a cow's vacant stare on his face.
Rudi looked behind them. First he expected to see the girls come out of the path. Then he hoped. Then he prayed.
"Where are the girls?" Rudi said to his aunt in a voice that cracked. He ran to catch up with her. "Where are Lucie and Elsie?"
Agnes looked back at the trees, and her eyebrows rose theatrically. "What? They're not here? They headed back before we did."
Rudi clenched his hands so tightly that the nails bit into the flesh of his palms. "Alone? You let them come back alone?"
Agnes stepped closer. Rudi was a boy of average size, so she loomed over him, a full head taller. "Don't take that tone with me, Rudiger. And calm yourself. The girls just went off to pick flowers or have one of their foolish games. That's all they ever want to do, anyway. Never work, only play."
"They didn't come out. I would have seen them," Rudi said. A hot fury erupted inside him, and his fists began to shake.
Agnes let her bundle of sticks drop to the ground at his feet. "Did you sell that oak at Waldrand? I hope you got a fair price, not like last time. But that's what happens when you trust a boy with a man's job." She wiped her hands on the front of her dress.
Suddenly the unexpected errand she'd sent him on made sense to Rudi. "You wanted me gone all day, didn't you? So I wouldn't be there to help the girls!" He turned to his uncle, who'd caught up to them now and dropped his bundle next to Agnes's. "Where are they, Uncle? What happened to Lucie and Elsie?"
"Oh. Well, Rudi, Agnes thought...," Hempel stammered, but Agnes interrupted him with a shriek.
"Hush, you fool! I already told him, the girls came back before us. They're around somewhere. Now leave us be and stack this wood, boy."
"No!" Rudi cried, kicking at the bundle. He knew he was shouting like a madman now, but he couldn't help it. Agnes might swat him with a switch, or refuse to give him his dinner, but he didn't care anymore. "I've heard you talk about them. I heard you tell Uncle there are too many mouths to feed. Now you've lost them in the woods. I know you did! It was your idea!" He jabbed a finger at Agnes, then whirled to face Hempel. "But why'd you let her do it? What's happened to you, Uncle Hempel?" Hempel chewed on a knuckle and stared at the ground.
Rudi ran to the cottage and threw the door open so hard that it nearly cracked as it struck the wall. His breath hissed in and out through his teeth as he grabbed his pack and stuffed a pair of blankets into it, along with his tinderbox, a knife, and his small ax. He dashed to the kitchen and added some fruits, a wedge of cheese, and the last of the bread.
When he turned around, he saw Agnes in the doorway. "What do you think you're doing? Put that food back; it's all we've got!" She spread her arms to block the way out.
"I'm going to find them."
"They're not lost!"
"They are so!" Rudi swung the pack over his shoulder. "I wish you'd never met my uncle." He jumped onto a chair and from there sprang through the open kitchen window.
Outside, Hempel sat on a stump, moaning and rubbing at the dampness on his cheeks. When he saw Rudi run by, his broad shoulders began to quake.
How much sunlight left? Rudi wondered. An hour or two maybe. He ran down the path, wondering where the girls might be. After a while he stopped and shouted their names, but the only answer came from the birds that were startled into flight, and the tiny unseen creatures that scurried in the brush.
Farther in, Rudi decided. Agnes wasn't kind, but she was clever. She would have lured the girls deep into the forest, where they'd have no chance of finding their way home. Just like what happened to -- what were their names? Hansel. That was the boy, and his sister was Gretel. They were relatives of his who lived in the same house many years ago. One day they'd been taken into the woods and told to wait by the fire for their mother and father to get them when the work was done. But their parents never came. And then it got dark. Like it is right now.
He shouted again, and put his hands behind his ears to listen. For a moment, he thought he heard something. But no, it was only an owl's cry.
Rudi ran farther and came to a stream with footprints in the muddy bank. There were two small pairs of prints among them, but they only pointed in one direction: deeper into the woods. He leaped across and ran on, looking left and right for the place where Agnes might have led the girls off the trail.
He stopped at last and leaned against a tree, hugging his stomach and drawing air into his aching lungs. His legs and arms might be strong from his days of cutting and hauling wood, but he'd never run this far in his life. When his breathing slowed, he shouted once more: "Lucie! Elsebeth!"
He heard nothing. But he smelled something. He tilted his head back and inhaled deeply, turned to where the scent was strongest, and sniffed again.
A fire. Somewhere ahead. Rudi stepped off the trail, keenly aware that it would be easy to get lost. He'd be walking away from the setting sun, so he could find the path again by heading back toward it, obviously. Or later, by keeping the North Star to his right. He smacked his fist against his thigh. Why hadn't he taught the girls how to find their way through the woods? There were so many things he knew and never shared.
The smoky scent grew stronger as he trotted east, his shadow stretching long and thin before him. He called again and again, but still no one answered. Maybe they're asleep by the fire, he thought, trying to reassure himself. He saw smoke through the trees and sprinted the rest of the way, until he stood in a clearing with the smoldering remains of a fire in front of him. But the girls were not there.
Rudi noticed something on the ground near the embers. It was a wreath made from wild vines twisted together. Lucie and Elsebeth surely made it; it was the sort of thing they would do to pass the time. Rudi picked it up and clutched it against his chest. He shouted their names again and again in every direction, until his throat was raw and his voice grew weak.
"Oh, no," he moaned. He kicked at the embers, and sparks flew toward the dimming sky. They were out there somewhere, sweet Lucie and serious Elsie, only six and seven years old. But which way? He was no hunter who could track their steps through the woods, reading the trodden grass or broken stems or other subtle clues. Besides, it would be too dark to see anything at all before long. He thought of them lost among the trees, holding on to one another in the black of night, and fought to push that image from his mind.
There was one thing he could do: Build up the fire again, until it roared so high it could be seen for miles in the night. Yes, they'll see it and come back, he thought. He gathered twigs and sticks and piled them on the embers -- it would be easier than starting a new fire with his flint and steel.
The bits of wood smoldered and burst into flame under his coaxing breath, and soon a modest fire blazed again. He needed more fuel now, the biggest, driest branches he could find. At the edge of the clearing Rudi saw a dead branch jutting from the trunk of a tree. He seized it and wrenched it off, grunting through his clenched teeth. The branch was long, and he stomped on it to break it into smaller pieces. Somehow it felt good to break it, and Rudi wanted to go on stomping until only sawdust was left, and keep on stomping until the whole forest lay in splinters.
"How could they do this?" he screamed. It occurred to him that people could be far crueler than he'd ever believed possible. A raw and powerful kind of anger that he'd never known before roared inside him. He was hardly aware that he'd picked up a broken length of the dead limb and was smashing it against the tree, sending chips and bits of bark flying.
And then he heard a voice, thin and reedy and high, from the shadows.
"Are you looking for the girls?"
Rudi froze. He could suddenly hear the thump of his heart inside his ears. It was almost night now, and more light came from the fire than the sky. Between the trees, he spied a pale spectral face with dark eyes staring back.
The voice came again. "I said, are you looking for the girls?"
Rudi had to swallow before he could answer. "Who is that? Who are you?"
The face vanished behind a thick tree, and came out on the other side, a little closer. It seemed to float among the shadows. "You are Rudi, aren't you? They said you would come."
"Where are the girls? If you have them, let them go." Rudi opened the top of his bag and pulled out the little ax.
"Put that away. Don't be afraid. The girls are safe, but they're not here."
"I'm not afraid!" Rudi shouted, but his brittle voice betrayed him. "But who are you? Why won't you let me see you?" He squeezed the handle of the ax, but that didn't stop it from shaking.
The pale face hung in the shadows for a moment, and then equally white hands reached up and drew a hood over its head. The stranger stepped into the orange light of the fire. It was a woman, Rudi realized; he could tell from her slender hands and the way she moved. He should have known already from her voice -- it was hoarse, but still a woman's. Her head was bowed so the drooping hood concealed her features. She wore a long cloak made of deerskin dyed dark brown, almost black. In one hand she held a bow, and he saw the feathered ends of a bouquet of arrows over her shoulder. Rudi lowered the ax to his side.
"My name is Marusch. Now come, we should leave this place," she said.
"Why? I'm not going anywhere until you show your face!"
"Ill-mannered boy. You may regret what you've asked," she said. The pale, long-fingered hands rose again and pushed the hood back.
Rudi gasped. He couldn't help it. Only the brown hair that hung past her shoulders in braids seemed normal. Everything else was wrong. Her skin was pure white, as if the sun never touched it. Coarse but sparse hair sprouted all over her face, even her forehead. And her mouth was the worst of all. The lips were shriveled and drawn back to bare a mouthful of long, red-stained teeth.
"Go away -- leave me alone!" Rudi whined. He stepped backward and raised his ax to ward off the ghastly stranger.
"I warned you," she said. "But now you must..." Her voice trailed off and she looked past Rudi. A sound was approaching: footsteps in the woods.
"Elsie? Lucie?" Rudi called out weakly. It was more a question than a hail.
"It isn't them," Marusch whispered. "It was a mistake to build the fire again -- now follow me!" Without waiting for a reply, she turned and hastened into the trees. Rudi paused for a moment and listened with failing courage to the approaching footsteps. They were too heavy and too many to belong to the girls. And something was wrong with the sound, somehow. It was unlike the steps of men. Now that he listened more carefully, Rudi heard other, unsettling noises mingled with the steps: hissing and gurgling.
Before whatever it was entered the clearing and saw him, he snatched up his pack and ran after Marusch. In the dim light, he could just make out her form. "Please, Marusch -- slow down!" he called as loudly as he dared. She stopped and waited, then gestured for him to join her behind a fallen tree. Crouching low, she tapped a finger against her drawn-back lips. They hid quietly, and she peered over the top of the log every now and then.
"It is safe," she said finally.
"Who were they?"
"Strange beings that have begun to prowl these woods," she replied. "Now come." And she was on the move again, darting through the trees.
Isn't that a thing. That's what Uncle Hempel always said when something out of the ordinary happened. He'd be saying it now for sure, if he was trying to follow this mysterious woman through the dark forest. Rudi wondered how she could know where she was going when he could barely see her from just a few steps behind. Marusch didn't move in a straight line. Instead she weaved left and right, so that he was soon irretrievably lost, with no hope of finding the path again. He began to wonder if he was being led into a trap, a trap that had already taken Lucie and Elsebeth.
Rudi nearly slammed into Marusch as she stopped at last in front of a great evergreen tree with a silvery gray trunk so wide a dozen men could have been concealed behind it. "Here," she said.
She pointed up, and Rudi saw a narrow ladder made of cord and wooden rungs that disappeared into the darkness above. "Go on, I will follow," Marusch said.
"Me? Uh, why don't you go first?"
She stared at him, and Rudi had to turn away from her pale, red-toothed face.
"So you fear to turn your back to me," Marusch said. "But weren't you behind me all this way? I only meant to stay below you, so I could help you find your footing. But as you wish, Rudi -- I will go first."
She went up nimbly and swiftly, as if eager to put some distance between them, and soon disappeared into the branches above. Rudi sighed deeply. He climbed after her, moving deliberately. The ladder that had seemed so steady under her hands and feet wobbled and swayed with his every move. He climbed through the bristling boughs until he was high above the ground and the trunk had tapered to half its size at the base. Overhead a wide flat shape came into view, so well concealed by the needled branches that he never could have seen it from the ground below. It was a platform that completely encircled the tree. Near the trunk there was a square black hole through which the ladder disappeared. Rudi climbed through the opening, and was surprised to find a roof over his head and walls around him. Marusch was waiting, and once he arrived she drew the ladder up, turning it like a scroll in her hands.
The room was dimly lit by a simple oil lamp that hung from a chain. It was just bright enough for Rudi to see Lucie and Elsebeth lying motionless on a mat in the corner. "What have you done to them?" he shouted, whirling to face Marusch.
"Quiet -- you'll wake them."
But Lucie was already rising and rubbing her eyes with her tiny fists. She saw them and was suddenly awake. "Rudi! Oh Marusch, you found him!" And then she and Elsebeth sprang to their feet.
Rudi caught the leaping girls in his arms and staggered, laughing, under their weight. "That's right, she found me," he said. He looked at Marusch. It was hard to read the emotions on her disfigured face, because her shriveled lips couldn't close over her crimson teeth. Her mouth appeared to smile. But there was sadness in her eyes.
"I'm sorry I was suspicious," he said to her, bending his knees to lower the girls to the floor. "You scared me...."
Marusch turned her face away. "I scare most people."
Rudi winced. "Not like that. You just came out of nowhere. And I was worried about the girls."
"You don't scare me, Marusch," Elsebeth said.
"Or me," said Lucie. Rudi had his hands on the girls' shoulders, and he gave them a gentle squeeze.
"But Rudi," Lucie said, frowning, "did you find Aunt Agnes and Uncle Hempel? They must have gotten lost. We waited by the fire, but they didn't come back. We tried to find them, but we couldn't, and then Marusch heard us calling."
"Don't worry about your aunt and uncle," Rudi replied, more coldly than he intended. He didn't see any reason to tell the girls the ugly truth just yet. Lucie had no idea she and her sister had been abandoned, he could see that. But Elsebeth peered at him with her lips pressed together and trembling. Wise Elsie; she suspected. "Yes, they got lost," Rudi told Lucie. "But they found their way back, and sent me to find you." Lucie leaned against him and hugged him anew, while Elsebeth brought the back of one thumb to her mouth and bit it softly.
"Marusch, can you help us find the way home?" Rudi asked.
"I know your village. Yes, I will bring you back to your path. But not until dawn. It isn't safe for you to travel by night."
Rudi remembered those footsteps in the gloom, and the strange gurgling noises that came with them. He decided she was probably right.
When the girls dozed again, Rudi stood and stretched and took a closer look around the little house. The trunk of the evergreen passed through the floor and out the thatched ceiling. When he walked around the tree, he saw a hammock slung in the corner. Near it was a wooden chest and a small table, holding only a hairbrush made of ivory with most of its teeth broken away. He also noticed a jug of water, and a basin.
Clothes hung from pegs on the wall. Some were made from the skins of animals. Others were the kind that regular village folk wore, but most of these were too tattered and threadbare to be useful. Rudi's mouth dropped at the corners. The clothes seemed to whisper a story, about a woman who lived among other people long ago, until she was banished -- or fled -- to a lonely existence in the woods. Because of the way she looked.
A breeze whistled through the windows, strong with the scent of pine. The tree swayed in the wind, and the house rocked with it, creaking all the while. Rudi had never been on the deck of a ship in the ocean before, but he imagined it felt and sounded just like this.
Besides the hole in the floor, now covered by a trapdoor, there was only one way out of the house: through another doorway that was covered by a draped rectangle of deer hide. Marusch had left through that door. Rudi pushed the skin aside and walked out onto a covered porch that faced a dense curtain of green.
Marusch was there, leaning against the rail, working by the light of a single candle. At her feet were bundles of sticks bound firmly together. Ash saplings, Rudi noted with a woodsman's practiced eye. They were a yard long and as slender as his little finger. They looked like they'd been selected for their straightness. She held one sapling and peeled away the few bits of bark that were still on it, exposing the pale wood underneath. She raised it to her eyes, looked down the length of it, and flexed it to straighten it further.
"Making arrows, right?" Rudi asked. She glanced at him, nodded, and picked another sapling from the pile.
"I know lots about wood. If you run out of ash, try birch. The forest is full of birch, and that makes good arrows too," Rudi said. She nodded again, without looking away from her work.
Rudi drummed on his thigh with his fingers and blew a puff of air out of the corner of his mouth. He looked around the porch. There was a simple kitchen here, with a small iron stove and shelves lined with jars and boxes and bowls. At the other end was a bench with tools for woodworking and stitching garments.
He looked up and saw another ladder leading higher into the great tree where Marusch had built her home, a majestic pine that towered above its neighbors.
"So...this is where you live?" he asked, and this time she simply turned and regarded him with her head tilted and her eyebrows raised.
"Right," he said. "Dumb question. Of course you live here. It was smart to build in an evergreen -- the house will always be hidden, even in winter."
"You should rest," Marusch told him. She picked up her bow and slung a quiver full of arrows over her shoulder.
"But -- where are you going?"
"Hunting," she said.
"Yes. The night is my time. If you are hungry, you will find berries and nuts and mushrooms in those jars. So eat if you must. Then rest, because we will leave before the sun rises high." Without another word, she slipped into the first room and disappeared down the ladder.
Copyright 2005 by P.W. Catanese
They followed Marusch through the forest, the girls walking between her and Rudi. She led them straight for a while, until her tree was out of sight. Then she took an abrupt turn to the left, and the right, and the left once more. From the faint glow of the sun that hadn't yet risen, Rudi could judge which way they were heading: south, west, south, east, north, west, south, west...It seemed like Marusch was guiding them through a labyrinth that only she could see.
They walked by a leaning tree that had toppled some time ago, only to be caught in the considerate branches of its neighboring oak. Rudi frowned at it. They'd passed it already on this journey.
Just when he was about to call to Marusch to ask if the girls could rest, she stopped. Rudi stepped behind her and whispered over her shoulder, so the girls would not hear. "Marusch, you don't have to confuse us like this. We won't come and look for you if you don't want us to. I promise."
She turned to face him. The sun had not risen yet, but this was the strongest light he'd seen her in so far. Determined not to look away, Rudi kept his gaze fixed on her dark blue eyes.
"Never come back," she said. "Or tell anyone about me."
"Oh, but Marusch," cried Elsebeth, "we want to see you again!"
Lucie tugged on her cloak. "Yes, you must be lonely. Rudi, did she tell you we're the first people to visit her in years?"
"No, she didn't," Rudi said. "Marusch, let us thank you by helping you. There must be things you need that we could bring you."
"I need nothing," she said. The sun was rising now, and its first rays pierced the narrow spaces between the trunks of the trees. Marusch turned her back and lifted her hood to shield her eyes.
"Is something wrong?" Rudi asked.
"I can't bear the sun," she replied. "It stings my eyes and burns my skin. It is time I left you."
"Leave us? But how will we find our way home?"
"If only your eyes were as mighty as your mouth, boy. Look around you." She used her bow to gesture to her right. Rudi saw a path -- their path -- just a few strides away.
From a pouch at her side Marusch pulled out a long and narrow piece of blue stained glass, like the kind Rudi had once seen in a church window in a faraway village. It had strips of cloth tied to holes at both ends. Marusch brought the glass to her eyes and secured it by knotting the strips behind her head. When she turned to face them again, the girls giggled at the sight of her.
Now that Rudi couldn't see her eyes, he couldn't imagine how Marusch was reacting to the girls' laughter. She simply said, "Good-bye," and turned to leave. But before she could take a second step, Lucie and Elsebeth ran to her and hugged her tight around the waist. She patted them on their heads, gently pried them away, and walked into the trees.
"There must be something we can give you," Rudi called after her.
"Solitude," she called over her shoulder. Then she was gone.
"We'll never see her again," Lucie mourned in her tiny, soft voice.
"It isn't fair," Elsebeth said, staring after her.
Rudi noticed an unusual rock next to the path, at the very spot where Marusch had left them. It was as tall as he and nearly round, with a wide vein of quartz running across it. It was cracked in half, with an inch-wide gap down the middle.
"Girls," he said, "don't forget this stone."
They stood at the edge of the woods, still in the shadows, and stared out into the brilliant sunlit meadow. Hempel was outside the house, swinging his ax with his brawny arms. The sound came toward them every time he propped another short length of wood on the scarred tree stump, and split it under his blade: Thwock!
Lucie tugged at Rudi's sleeve. "Why are we waiting?"
Rudi took a deep breath and let it escape through his nose. We're waiting because I don't know what to do or what to say, he thought. He'd been thinking about that since Marusch left them on the path, and he still hadn't the slightest idea. Should they say nothing and pretend it never happened? Would Agnes even let them come back? And where would they go if she didn't? There was nobody he could think of who would take them in. No one in the village wanted three more mouths to feed.
He bent his knees to look the girls in the eye. "Ready?"
"I don't want to go back," Elsebeth said through clenched teeth. Lucie's mouth trembled, and she blinked furiously as her eyes began to water.
They knew. Both of them knew.
Rudi took their hands, squeezing gently. He didn't want to talk about what Agnes had done, but he had to say something. "It'll be all right, girls. I'll take care of you. And I'll try to find someplace for us to go. A place where we can be happy and safe. Until then, stay close to me. Understand? Don't go anywhere without me. And don't trust Aunt Agnes or Uncle Hempel. Or any other grown-up. Trust me -- I'll protect you."
"I know you will," Lucie said. "I believe you."
"And you, Elsebeth," Rudi said. "Do you believe me?"
She gripped his hand with surprising strength for one so small. "If we get lost again, you'll come for us, like you did last night?"
"No matter what happens?"
Rudi returned her solemn gaze. "I will go anywhere to bring you back. I will fight anyone who tries to harm you. I always will."
She smiled. "Then I believe you too."
Rudi rose out of his crouch, still holding their hands. "Let's go, then." They walked into the sun and across the meadow to the tiny house.
Hempel swung his ax at another log. Thwock! The log was cleaved in two, and half tumbled through the air in their direction, landing in the grass with a muffled thump. Hempel turned to retrieve it, and his gaze fell on Rudi and the girls. There was a look in his eye that Rudi had come to know well: a vacant, befuddled expression. It had appeared more and more frequently in the two years since Agnes had become his wife. Perhaps it was the way that Hempel escaped her glaring eye and sharp tongue.
"Oh!" Hempel cried, taking an awkward step back. He dropped the ax, and his hands flew up and slapped the sides of his face. His mouth formed a gaping oval.
"Hello, Uncle," Rudi said in a low, flat voice.
"Isn't that a thing! Oh, children, I'm so happy to see you all," Hempel cried, rushing to them. He lifted the girls, one in each powerful arm, and kissed them on their cheeks, then threw his arms around Rudi and lifted him as well. The grim expression on Rudi's face never changed, and he didn't return the embrace.
"Oh, Rudi, what was I thinking?" he moaned after he lowered Rudi to the ground again.
You weren't thinking at all, Rudi thought, struggling to contain the anger that flared white-hot inside him. He turned at the sound of Agnes's voice as she stepped out of the house and called to Hempel. In her hands was a wooden box that Rudi recognized at once.
"You should take these to the fair and sell them," Agnes said. "They might bring us some coin...." Her voice trailed off and her eyes widened when she saw Rudi and the girls.
Only a few items peeked out of the top of the box, but that was enough to show Rudi what it contained. It held all the wooden toys he'd ever carved for himself and the girls -- dolls and soldiers, wheeled horses and bears and wagons. She was selling every trace of their existence, not a day after she'd left the girls in the woods. Rudi stared at her with his mouth agape.
Agnes was caught off guard for a moment by the sight of the children. But the cold glint that was native to her eye returned soon enough. "So you're back, are you? Well, what are you staring at? I'm tired of tripping over your useless toys."
Rudi glared at the face he hated so much. People who didn't know better thought that Agnes was beautiful -- the men in the village were always staring and finding reasons to walk past her -- but he cursed the day she'd ever met his uncle. He squeezed his hands into fists. Somehow that made it easier to hold his courage and look her in the eye. He stepped closer and lowered his voice so only she could hear him. Don't talk to her like a boy, he urged himself. Talk to her like a grown-up.
"Listen, Aunt Agnes. As soon as I possibly can, I'll take the girls with me and leave. I don't know when. Soon, I hope. But until we go, you'd better not mistreat the girls or try to lose them again."
Agnes's lip arched a little on one side. "And what makes you think you can tell me what to do, little man?"
"Just leave us alone," Rudi said. "Unless you want the whole village to know what you've done. And believe me, I'll tell them." He saw, with some satisfaction, her knuckles turn white as her fingers clenched the box. If Agnes had a soft spot, he'd just struck it: her reputation. Nobody in the village knew how cruelly she reigned at this little house down the road.
She grunted and threw the box at Rudi. He tried to catch it, but the toys tumbled out, and some of the delicate carvings broke on the ground. A red rage clouded his mind. He wanted to scream at her, but couldn't find the right words to spit out.
And that was when the voice of a stranger piped up behind him: "Oh -- you dropped your things! Here, let me help you."
Neither Rudi nor Agnes had noticed him coming. Neither did Hempel and the girls, for they stared at him too, wondering who he was. The newcomer was not a young man, but he was not yet old, either. In most every way he seemed unremarkable. He was of average height and build, though better fed than most, judging by the plump roll around his waist. His hair hung straight and long on both sides of his face, like a parted curtain, and was half brown and half gray. He offered an innocent smile, but when he looked at Rudi his eyebrows flicked up, a nearly unseen gesture that hinted of conspiracy. The stranger swung his fat pack off one shoulder and laid it on the ground, so that he could bend more easily to pick up the scattered toys.
"How nice these are," he said, admiring a wooden doll. "Did someone here carve them? You, perhaps, young man?"
"A talented hand." The stranger turned toward Hempel, who was still sweating from his work. "They say wood warms us twice," he said to Hempel. "Once when we cut it, and again when we burn it."
Hempel's eyes crossed as he concentrated. "I don't understand," he finally said.
The stranger blinked at Rudi's uncle and then gave his head a little shake. He turned to Agnes, concluding that perhaps she was the one in charge.
"My name is Horst," he said. "And I have a favor to ask. I need a place to stay."
"This is no inn," Agnes snapped, smoothing the front of her dress. "The village is a few miles down the road. You must have passed it on the way."
"Of course, dear lady," Horst said. Now his happy expression seemed a trifle pained around the eyes. "But I stayed in the village inn last night. Now I wish to stay near this part of the forest."
"The forest? Why?"
"I am mapping its borders. Do you know that no such map exists? Nobody really knows how large the forest is. Isn't that curious?"
"Not to me." Agnes sniffed. She turned to enter the house.
"I'll pay," Horst sang after her.He shook a pouch that he'd taken from his pocket, and the muffled jangle of coins called out to Agnes.
She peered back at him over one shoulder. "How much?"
Horst reached into the bag and pulled out a handful of coins. "Seven pfennigs for a week. And you must feed me as well as give me a place to sleep."
Rudi watched her stare at the silver coins. She was like a cat that just saw a bird land on its windowsill. He rolled his eyes. "Not enough," Agnes scoffed and continued into the house.
"Dear woman," Horst called out, "I think we both know my offer is generous. This is a humble house, and you are humble folk. Can you really afford to turn me away?"
Agnes's face reappeared at the window. "Very well. You can take his bed," she said, jabbing her finger toward Rudi. Then she was gone.
"What a lovely woman," Horst said to Rudi, smiling. "Your mother?"
"She's the mother of many things, but not children," Rudi replied.
"I see. I see very well," said Horst, chuckling. "Clever boy. Tell me, do you spend a lot of time in this forest?"
"Sure," Rudi said. "I gather wood in there all the time. That's what Uncle and I do."
"Well then. After I get myself settled, let us take a walk. I have questions, and something tells me you may have the answers."BR
Horst and Rudi strolled along the edge of the forest while the girls trailed behind and plucked wildflowers. Lucie had a knack for braiding flowers together into necklaces and chains, and each of them already had a crown of blossoms on her head. Rudi wondered how they could still enjoy themselves this way after the terrible thing that Aunt Agnes had done.
"You said you're mapping this forest?" he asked Horst.
"That's right," Horst said. He squinted into the dense trees.
"Who wants it mapped?"
"A wealthy and powerful man from the land where I live."
"Really? What land is that?"
Horst smiled crookedly down at Rudi. "Hold on. I'm the one with the questions. There's a landmark I'm keen to locate. Perhaps you've heard of it: a cottage, deep in the woods. It's said that a witch once lived there."
Rudi narrowed one blue eye. "Are you making fun of me?"
"What? No, of course not. Why would you say -- "
"You think I'm a silly country boy who believes that story?"
"And what story would that be?" Horst asked, scratching the back of his neck.
Rudi pointed at the little house across the meadow. "Two children lived here.
Hansel and Gretel. That was a long time ago -- thirty or forty years, I guess. They were my father's cousins, or something like that. But anyway, there's this story that people tell...It's kind of weird. I don't think I really believe it."
Horst sat and patted the ground beside him. "Tell me what you've heard."
Rudi sat with his back against a large stone and his legs crossed. "When Hansel and Gretel were very young, their parents abandoned them in the forest. They were gone for weeks, and everybody was sure they were dead. But then one day they walked out of the woods and told this crazy story about what had happened to them."
Horst waved his hand in a little circle, telling Rudi to go on.
"They said that when they realized their parents weren't coming back for them, they tried to find their way back," Rudi said. "But they got lost and wandered around in the woods. And then they saw a white bird, and the bird flew ahead of them, like it was leading them somewhere. Then...well, you're going to think this is silly."
"The white bird led them to a cottage. A cottage made of gingerbread and candy."
Rudi stared back. "You know this story."
"I'm sure I do. Tell me if this is how it goes: They were captured by the witch who lived in the cottage, and the witch wanted to eat Hansel, but clever Gretel pushed her into her own oven."
"That's right. And Hansel and Gretel filled their pockets with as much of the witch's treasure as they could carry, and found their way home."
Horst pulled a long strand of grass from the ground and wound it around his finger, nodding to himself. "That's a strange tale, all right. So what happened to those two? Are they still around?"
"No. My dad -- he and my mom died a few years ago, and then I moved in with Uncle Hempel -- my dad used to say that once Hansel and Gretel were rich with the witch's jewels, they couldn't get away from these woods fast enough. Bad memories, I guess. So they moved to some faraway land. You know, so they could 'live happily until the end of their days.'"
"'Live happily until the end of their days?'" Horst laughed. "Now you're silly. Nobody does that."
Horst leaned back and stared at the late afternoon sky. "I've heard that phrase end many a story, Rudi. If it was me, I'd write: 'And they lived as happily as could be expected, under the circumstances.'"
There was a quiet in the field, broken only by the buzz and chirp of summer insects.
"Rudi," Horst said, propping himself on one elbow, "what if your pockets were stuffed with the witch's treasure? What would you do?"
Rudi stared at the house again. Agnes was outside now, watching them with one hand shielding her eyes from the sun. It must drive her mad wondering what we're talking about, Rudi thought with great satisfaction. "I'd take the girls and get out of here. With a quick stop to say 'good riddance' to Aunt Agnes," he replied.
"What's the trouble with your aunt?"
"You know that part of the story where the grown-ups abandon Hansel and Gretel in the woods? You could say it runs in the family."
Horst's mouth dropped open. He followed Rudi's glance toward the house, where Agnes stood. "So that's what you were arguing about when I arrived. It's...it's hard to believe."
"Not if you know Aunt Agnes."
"But...what about your uncle? He didn't object?"
Rudi shrugged. "Uncle Hempel can be talked into anything. At least, he's been that way ever since Agnes showed up. He was never very bright, but he wasn't a bad man. Now it's like...I don't know, like he's in a fog most of the time. He just does whatever she tells him."
"And when did Agnes show up?"
"She came to the village a few years ago. She took one look at Hempel and decided he was the man for her. And I suppose he is. They go together like a hammer and a nail. What's funny is, people in the village couldn't understand why she chose Hempel. They said she was pretty enough to have any man she wanted. Those men don't know how lucky they really are."
Horst smiled. "Now, the girls, they're not your sisters?"
"No. There was a bad fire in the village, and their parents died. They had nowhere to go, and Agnes offered to take them in."
"Take them in? But she just tried to..."
"There was an inheritance. Not a big one, but enough of a lure for Agnes. Of course, just a month later she was complaining that there were too many mouths to feed."
Horst looked across the meadow, and his mouth twisted. "We shouldn't have said her name aloud. Now we've summoned her, like a demon." And sure enough, Agnes was coming at them with her legs knifing through the tall grass.
"Before she gets here, Rudi, I want to ask you something," Horst said. He leaned close and spoke quickly. "Just how well do you know these woods?"
"Better than most. But they're awfully big."
"For certain. But have you seen that witch's cottage or any house at all, deep in the forest?"
Rudi laughed. "No. And believe me, other people have tried to find it, in case some of those jewels were left behind."
"Some were, Rudi," Horst said, in a low and serious tone that Rudi hadn't heard from him before. "More were left behind than were brought out."
Horst stood and Rudi did likewise. "How do you know that?" Rudi whispered.
"I simply do," Horst said, smiling slyly and glancing at Agnes. She bore down on them like a charging bull and was almost close enough to hear their words. "Quickly now, here is my offer: If you can help me find that house, you can have a fair share of any treasure we find. Then you and the girls can leave here for good. Don't answer just yet! Think about it, and tell me tonight after dinner."
Copyright 2005 by P.W. Catanese
Excerpted from The Eye of the Warlock by P. W. Catanese Copyright © 2005 by P. W. Catanese. Excerpted by permission.
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